ELLSWORTH — Leeona Warren will always be her parents’ baby. They will never know her as anything else.
The 7-pound baby girl nicknamed “LeeLee” died minutes before being born on Aug. 25, 2016.
Her death was attributed to lack of oxygen during labor.
“Many see the lives of [the] stillborn as never living,” wrote her mother, Kassie Warren, in an online journal. “My daughter did live. She lived nine beautiful months in my belly — she kicked, she moved, she hiccupped all the time. Her life counts. She is real. I am a mom. I am her mom.”
Kassie was just shy of 40 weeks pregnant when her water broke in the early morning hours of Aug. 25. After laboring at home for a while, she and husband, Matthew, headed to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital. There, medical staff discovered the baby’s heart rate was fluctuating wildly. Kassie was immediately prepped for an emergency C-section.
When she woke up, a midwife broke the horrible news: “Honey, your baby didn’t make it.”
Prior to that moment, “I never for one minute thought that baby wasn’t coming home with me,” said Kassie, who had enjoyed a healthy and uneventful pregnancy.
The umbilical cord became wrapped around the baby’s neck during labor. That and a blood clot in the cord are believed to have stopped the flow of oxygen.
An ultrasound the day before showed a healthy baby.
“To me she was just absolutely beautiful,” Kassie said.
Through their grief, the Warrens have taken comfort in their child’s final gifts.
Leeona’s organs were donated to five other babies, and her mother supplied about 200 ounces of breast milk to a milk bank for patients in neonatal intensive care.
For the Warrens, those donations are further proof that Leeona’s life mattered — that she existed and she was loved.
They balk at any insinuation that they are not “real” parents or that Leeona’s life was somehow less than any other child’s.
So it was a painful discovery when they realized that families of stillborn children are not eligible for a tax credit in Maine.
“The last thing I want is for someone to think that I am trying to make money off the loss of my child, that is not what I’m after,” Kassie wrote in a Facebook post. “I think that in every way, shape and form my daughter should count in all facets of the law.”
“There are so many things that can make you feel like you’re not a real parent when your child is gone,” she wrote. “There are so many moments that make you feel alone. I don’t think the law should be another one of those crushing blows.”
The Warrens have Leeona’s death certificate and are working to obtain a birth certificate. A 2009 Maine law allows parents to obtain birth certificates for stillborn children. However, children who die before birth are not considered dependents for tax purposes at the state or federal level.
A single breath could make the difference.
Missouri and Arizona have laws allowing bereaved parents to claim one-time tax exemptions for stillborn children on their state income tax returns.
Kassie said she’d like Maine to institute a similar, one-time $2,000 tax credit in recognition of the expense of an anticipated child and an unanticipated death.
The Warrens incurred all the expenses of any other expecting parents in 2016. They had medical bills and picked out a crib, books, toys, clothes, diapers and other necessities.
Kassie figures she repainted the nursery 10 times trying to get it just right for her future daughter.
Following the stillbirth, the Warrens had the added financial burden of a funeral and missed work.
They buried their daughter Sept. 4 with her father’s ball cap, a stuffed elephant and a blanket embroidered with her name and the words “Daddy’s girl.”
The Warrens said they were overwhelmed with support — both emotional and financial — following their daughter’s death, but that not all families are so lucky.
A tax credit could help make ends meet while simultaneously acknowledging a child’s life, Kassie said.
“I am a firm believer that my little girl was just as much a baby as the next!” Warren wrote in her Facebook post. “She passed away minutes before she was born. I heard her heart beat while I was in labor. She had 10 fingers, 10 toes, brown eyes and perfect little lips.”
Her grief following the stillbirth was so intense that her own mother had to write out to-do lists reminding her to complete basic daily functions: “Wake up. Shower. Brush teeth. Dress.”
When others complain about the harder moments of child rearing — the poopy diapers, crying jags and mess — Warren longs for what she never experienced with Leeona.
The family cherishes photos of Leeona taken after delivery. The photos were taken by Ellsworth photographer Zelli Isherwood, owner of Zi Photography, whose nonprofit Born to Fly provides bereavement photography for families who have lost infants.
As a child, Kassie remembers a cousin who also had a stillborn child. That mother only had a few snapshots to remember her baby by.
Kassie wanted her own daughter’s life and loss to be well documented.
Her cousin’s experience also showed Kassie that life does go on.
She and Matthew, who began dating as teenagers, wed on New Year’s Eve.
They had planned a later wedding with Leeona as a flower girl.
In the end, “what was really important was my finally being a Warren and having the same last name as my daughter,” Kassie said.
The couple hope for more children in the future.